Tweety's Grand Adventure
Exiting a Mini can be a complicated, undignified affair.
Rather than alighting gracefully, you pour out like a human puddle.
I discover this en route to Lake Waikaremoana, at a Wairoa service station, while filling up Tweety, a 1976 Leyland Mini.
There’s something romantic and rather exciting about a road trip, piloting the car you learned to drive in.
But 20 years after whizzing around an abandoned aerodrome in the UK, crunching gears and destroying clutches, the reality is proving somewhat different.
There's nothing romantic about folding yourself like origami to slide behind the wheel. The logistics of squeezing 112 kilos of man motorist into one of the smallest cars ever manufactured is not exciting. Tweety has been spruced for the ride and clearly has shrunk in the wash. He's minute.
But as I turn the key and Tweety roars to life, the familiar purr of the engine banishes all doubts. He is the same car. And he's every bit as awesome as I remember.
First, I take Tweety for a test drive to Whakamahia Beach. Pitched on the black sand we soak up the sunrise together. Then we head back into Wairoa, but Tweety yearns for Mahia and who am I to refuse? We're there and back in a little over an hour – just long enough to get to know each other. After a few more photoshoots and practice hill starts I am prepped to tackle SH38.
There's nothing romantic about folding yourself like origami to slide behind the wheel.
Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
Just like a high-performance race car, Tweety's pedals are close together so I lose the sneakers. As we pass the 100km/h sign at the edge of town I'm comfortable at 80km/h but Tweety wants more and soon we're at 100, making short work of the 40 kilometres to Tuai and its Art Deco power station.
Chattering teeth, shaking bones and the occasional deafening bang mark the beginning of the unsealed section of the road. There's no break assist or power steering and my chocolate box country outing has suddenly become more slippery than sweetly, but Tweety takes it all in his stride.
I throttle down, with echoes of "keep to the left" guiding my route as I round another hairpin. I'm in no hurry so I let every car tailing me pass. Each driver blushes rosy and waves energetically as they pass. It's a Mini thing. You can't not smile.
Arriving at the lake silences man and car: a quiet moment of reflection to take it all in. The high-altitude lake, formed by an ancient natural landslide, broadens my smile and refills the wellness of my soul, the way only Mother Nature can.
Tweety takes another 30 minutes to trace the lake's shoreline before we arrive at Home Bay. Here we get our first glimpse of the award-winning living building Te Kura Whenua.
Relics of the former Aniwaniwa Visitor Centre have been lovingly upcycled in the new building, which houses the tribal headquarters, giftshop and visitor centre.
For the adventurous it's the beginning of one of New Zealand's Great Walks, a 46-kilometre, three or four-day intermediate grade trek around the lake. It's one of the least visited of NZ's great walks, but you'll still need to book ahead if you want to stay in one of the five huts or campsites.
I'm not walking.
Driving a 40-year-old Mini on unsealed roads is exhausting.
And there is an element of the ridiculous about the whole journey. When I pull up for a pie stop at the lake-side shop and man-puddle out of the driver's seat, a young child points and says, "mummy, what's that"?
It's time to go home, but not before I've tackled Lou.
Lou is a lookout.
There is an element of the ridiculous about the whole journey. When I pull up for a pie stop at the lake-side shop and man-puddle out of the driver's seat, a young child points and says, "mummy, what's that"?
It's a relatively easy half-hour, uphill trek for the moderately fit, past great slabs of tumbledown rock.
Saddled up with cameras and tripods, I am panting within seconds and wheezing within minutes. By the time I reach the summit I have to lie down on the wooden lookout platform. I am alone and so groan quietly for a spell.
Just when I thought Tweety couldn't look any smaller, I gaze downwards and see a tiny yellow speck of car.
I'm still alone up here on Lou, so I linger longer for just a while.
But Tweety is calling and I am keen to get going before the far-off clouds with their unsettlingly grey underbellies make wet the already challenging conditions.
Tweety and I race along the gravel. I am used to slipping and sliding now, and the thunderous bang of rocks bouncing under the chassis. But as I peer into the wing mirrors to check there's no one behind...
I am keen to get going before the far-off clouds with their unsettlingly grey underbellies make wet the already challenging conditions.
Where are the mirrors?
An hour later I find them by the side of the road.
To avoid the vibrations shaking them loose again I stow them in the glove box along with my significantly depleted enthusiasm, and head for home.
By the time I arrive, I am both spent and spirited.
The sheer raw thrill of driving a car that yearns to be driven cannot be beaten.